'Imagine that your gut is a garden - there are processes you need to follow' - Frances Flannery believes health comes from within
Frances Flannery radiates good health. She tells Joy Orpen that science is now revealing that good mental, as well as physical well-being, comes from within - from deep inside your gut, to be precise
When Frances Flannery was just a little girl, she experienced a trauma so profound, it affected her for the rest of her life.
It happened shortly after the family left London to live in rural Co Meath. On that tragic day, Frances's father, a property developer, was electrocuted in the course of his work. "Mum was left with two kids, and huge financial challenges," explains Frances. "I became aware of mortality when I was just six years old. I also got a stern lesson in the transitional nature of relationships, material possessions and money."
Soon after, Frances's grandmother joined them. "She grew some of the food we ate, including pumpkins and courgettes, and she put edible flowers in our salads," Frances says. Back then, Frances couldn't have known that her grandmother's green-fingered genes would hugely influence her future.
Frances's first career move was to study graphic design. She then spent three years spearheading a design initiative at a department store. During this period, she suffered burn-out. "Looking back, it was probably a three-person job," explains Frances. "But in reality, there was just me. And since I created that role, I only had myself to blame. I kept pushing myself until I was exhausted."
Consequently, she developed kidney infections and was prescribed antibiotics. Unfortunately, she went into anaphylactic shock because of the medication, and had to stop taking the drugs immediately.
Having left the retail business, Frances did a post-graduate degree in e-business. By then, her interest had already been piqued by the studies that Elizabeth, her mother, was doing towards a degree in psychotherapy. "Mum began to notice that some people who presented with mental-health issues had a tendency to neglect the basics, like nutrition; or they might self-medicate," says Frances. "She then wondered if that didn't contribute to mood-affecting toxicity. So, she became interested in the whole area of raw food, colonics, liver cleansing and fasting to improve physical and mental well-being.
"During my post-grad studies, I began to introduce the lifestyle changes that my mum had honed. My energy levels and focus increased dramatically, and I achieved first-class honours," Frances says. "I believe this was directly related to having optimised my own gut health and having cleared my body of toxins."
In 2009, Frances read an article in the Harvard Medical Journal which explained that up to 90pc of serotonin, the body's 'feel-good' hormone was actually produced in the bowel (also known as the large intestine and colon). She wondered if there might be a link between cleansing the bowel and optimising mental wellness.
Eventually, Frances went to the US and trained with the International Association of Colon Hydrotherapy (I-ACT). She then did courses in dental nursing and nutrition. Given her mother was also a highly experienced nurse, these two were well qualified to set up The Vitality Centre in Dublin - a clinic offering colonic hydrotherapy and other related services.
However, it would seem that gut health, though fascinating, can also be very complicated. According to Frances, emerging science has demonstrated that the bowel contains a complex microbiome made up of trillions of organisms commonly known as gut flora, which play a crucial role in modulating the immune system. "The immune system keeps disease out, and is a defence against pathogens," she explains.
And because gut health is so complex and multi-faceted, Frances has come up with a teaching tool that uses analogies inspired by her grandmother's love of gardening to help illustrate the process they use for well-being. "I created the Gut Garden Concept to help ordinary people understand the various aspects of gut health, including colonics, probiotics, prebiotics, fermented foods, food triggers and the importance of avoiding parabens and other toxins in the diet," she says. "Imagine that your gut is a garden, albeit a microscopic one - naturally, like all gardens, there are some processes you need to follow."
Frances says that the first step is to clear the garden of weeds (toxins) by using colonic hydrotherapy to cleanse the gut of foreign invaders such as candida (a common fungal infection) as well as residual faecal matter, which may be a breeding ground for unhealthy bacteria.
"The system we use makes it possible to have the treatment without anyone physically touching you," explains Frances. "This helps alleviate the mental barriers many people have about their bowel and gut health."
She recommends three sessions of colonic hydrotherapy to soak and clear away excess overgrowths of candida, as well as other toxins present in the bowel. "A few years ago, scientists told us there were no toxins in the bowel," says Frances, "but recent findings suggest otherwise."
The second stage, is to 'plant' probiotics in the bowel to nurture the trillions of healthy microbes living within our bodies. "It is commonly accepted that balancing good gut flora in the bowel has untold health benefits when it comes to weight management, boosting the immune system and improving mood and skin," explains Frances. "Oral probiotics combined with probiotic enemas are certainly the most direct ways to introduce good gut flora. This is also the view of experts like Dr David Perlmutter."
The third stage is the absorption of prebiotic foods like kimchi, apple cider vinegar and sauerkraut, which also assist in promoting good microorganisms. And finally, stage four - a healthy, natural diet that avoids all processed foods, sugars, chemicals, preservatives and unnecessary medication and alcohol.
Frances's ideas on the importance of gut health are shared by Richard Burton, CEO of the Irish Institute of Nutrition and Health, who said in the introduction to Frances's book, Let's Talk About Happiness - The Ultimate Guide to Functional Gut Health: "What is becoming clear is that the trillions of micro-organisms harboured by a healthy colon are somehow continually acting to provide information from the surrounding environment, via food, to our internal systems for adaptation and homeostasis.
"This intelligent interface between bugs and body seems to be the immune system - 70pc of which is found in and around the colon. Beyond that, there is convincing evidence of a gut-brain-axis, which would help explain the often-seen link between chronic digestive problems and mental-health issues."
It would seem that this is just the beginning when it comes to understanding the complexties of the gut. There is every possibility that in years to come, we will be deeply concerned about what we put into our bodies when it comes to mental-health issues. As Hippocrates said 2,500 years ago, "all disease begins in the gut".
'Let's Talk About Happiness - The Ultimate Guide to Functional Gut Health' by Frances Flannery, will be published in the spring in line with the opening of Vitality Centre's new Grafton Street location. See dublinvitalitycenter.com